Islamist party commits suicide if it works alone
Yemen’s Opposition May Be Caught by Its Own Double Game
Source: The New York Times, By KAREEM FAHIM, 03/12/2011
SANA, Yemen — For years, Islah, the country’s largest and best organized opposition group, played a double game in Yemeni politics, maintaining close ties to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh while it also cultivated a network of supporters to defeat him.
Its shifting alliances, reflecting different currents within the movement, helped keep Islah ahead of its opposition rivals in Yemen. That strategy also kept Islah out of power, unable to credibly offer an alternative to a government it was seen to be in league with.
Now, with the increasing likelihood of Mr. Saleh’s exit, Islah, like Islamist organizations around the region, should be poised to win a strong showing at the polls. But that outcome may be in doubt: The strategy that kept the party afloat through the Saleh years may have undermined its credibility.
Unlike the largely untested Islamist parties that are rising to power in the wake of the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, Yemen’s Islamists may find that their long record in politics here, stretching over two decades, is a liability, analysts said. Islah’s leaders — even if they hold strong positions in the interim unity government — will have to contend with the party’s mixed record of governance, confusion about its ideological goals and the continued dominance of Mr. Saleh’s ruling party, which remains intact, analysts said.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Yemeni movement has been dealing with increasingly visible divisions as it edges closer to greater power. Days after Islah’s leaders signed on to an agreement that required Mr. Saleh to hand over his executive powers in exchange for a promise of immunity, many of the group’s members were still protesting in the streets and fuming at what they saw as an unacceptable compromise.
“This is politics,” said Ali Mohammed al-Hadda, an Islah member sitting in Change Square, where protesters, including thousands of party members, have camped out for 10 months pressing for Mr. Saleh to resign. After the signing the deal, fights broke out between youth activists also furious at the agreement, and Islah members, who in turn, blamed their leaders.
“The revolution’s goals have not been met,” Mr. Hadda said. “We told them we are very angry.”
For their part, Islah’s leaders are trying to use the moment to reintroduce themselves to Yemenis. During a two-year transitional period that starts with a presidential election in February, they will share power with other opposition groups and the ruling party in a national unity government. Islah politicians are expected to be named to important cabinet posts.
Like other regional Islamist parties, some of Islah’s leaders are promoting their plans to fight corruption and create a civil state based on laws, while publicly playing down any talk of imposing a religious social agenda, for fear of frightening voters.
“The most important thing to do in this period is reassure people that we are not just seeking power,” said Rajeh Badi, the editor of Islah’s newspaper, As-Sahwah. “I think Islah is not going to work alone. Islah knows if it works alone, it commits suicide.”
Founded in 1990 by members of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and powerful tribesmen after the unification of North and South Yemen, Islah colluded with Mr. Saleh to blunt the influence of the Socialist Party. By the end of the decade, Islah had been transformed to the opposition, though one of its founders, Sheik Abdullah al-Ahmar, remained an ally of Mr. Saleh.
Strengthened by a highly effective recruitment policy, as well as its organizational skills and its provision of services the government could not provide, Islah became the country’s biggest opposition party.
Even so, Yemeni voters repeatedly denied the movement a mandate. In elections for local councils in 2006, Mr. Saleh, outmaneuvered the Islamists, who won far fewer seats than expected. Some of Islah’s own leaders, including Sheik Ahmar, propelled their rivals to victory by publicly endorsing Mr. Saleh.
The party has also had to face lingering resentment from southern Yemenis, who remember the role played by Islamist militias allied with the north during the civil war of 1994.
Yemeni analysts say Islah’s future success will depend in large part on how it manages its own diverse membership, in a party that includes Muslim Brotherhood members, ultraconservatives called Salafis, tribal sheiks and businessmen. Tawakkol Karman, the journalist and Nobel laureate whose arrest in January helped set off Yemen’s revolution, is affiliated with the group’s more moderate current.
On the other side is Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a onetime mentor to Osama bin Laden who was named a “specially designated global terrorist” by the United States Treasury Department in 2004. Mr. Zindani is the most the prominent leader of the old-guard camp that many Yemeni observers say still holds sway in the party, despite assertions by moderates that they are becoming more influential.
In March, Mr. Zindani spoke at Change Square, delivering the message that was both a signal of his break with Mr. Saleh and an indicator of his view of the party’s goals. “An Islamic state is coming!” he declared.
April Longley Alley, who studies Yemen for the International Crisis Group, said Islah’s organizational structure helped the movement bind some of its conflicting parts, but she added: “Some people who want to shift the party in a different direction have been stifled by the internal organization. The system appears to be undemocratic. The older generation of leadership seems to make the ultimate decisions.”
The battles within the movement have played out in public. Mr. Zindani was behind a push to form so-called Virtue Councils to regulate morality in public life. More recently, he and Ms. Karman were on opposite sides of one of the group’s more contentious battles, whether to raise the minimum age to 17 from 15 for marriage in a country where young girls, especially in rural areas, often marry in their early teens.
The measure was defeated in Parliament.
Islah members joined the protests in Sana this year, where its members turned out by the thousands, providing security, food and medical expertise to the pro-democracy camp.
That signaled the group’s most forceful break with Mr. Saleh, but also led to accusations that the party was trying to co-opt the demonstration. The opposition was joined by soldiers loyal to a defected major general, Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who has ties with the Islamist group.
Now, political activists trying to start new parties in Yemen are hoping that younger Islah members disillusioned by the party will consider leaving. “I know a lot of people who had no problem with Islah. But they saw the real face of Islah in the square,” said Najeeb Ghallab, a researcher at Sana University who considers himself a liberal.
Despite the internal divisions, many of Islah’s leaders are adamant that the party will not fracture, saying that such divides are normal for a political party, and healthy. Ali al-Ansi, an Islah lawmaker, said: “There are different debates, within every ideological group, taking place. The formal decision-making process is democratic,” he said.
Mr. Ansi said the ruling party was hoping, for its own reasons, for a split within Islah, but he added, “It would never take place.”